Road Rules 

The dos (The Puffy Chair) and don’ts (Little Miss Sunshine) of making a quirky travel comedy.

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Did you hear about the terrific Sundance-pedigree comedy about a road trip in a van, with characters working out their dysfunctional relationships along the way? Hint: It is not called Little Miss Sunshine.

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You’ve probably heard something about Little Miss Sunshine because it wowed audiences at Sundance 2006, landed a big distribution deal and features the kind of well-known comedy stars (like Steve Carell and Greg Kinnear) that turn into national entertainment-magazine covers. Conversely, you’ve probably heard exactly nothing about The Puffy Chair, a Sundance 2005 entry by brothers Mark and Jay Duplass that is only now crawling its way into theaters. While the Sunshine hype machine surges into overdrive, The Puffy Chair chugs along under the radar. This is strangely appropriate, because while The Puffy Chair is almost effortless in its charm and insight, Little Miss Sunshine strains so hard to be wacky that it’s more like an aerobic workout than a comedy.

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Yet critics and audiences inexplicably have fallen in love with the Hoover family of Albuquerque: Richard (Kinnear), a motivational speaker trying to sell his “9-step system”; his wife, Sheryl (Toni Collette); Sheryl’s brother Frank (Carell), a suicidal gay Proust scholar; Richard’s foul-mouthed, porn-loving, heroin-sniffing dad (Alan Arkin); 15-year-old Dwayne (Paul Dano), a nihilist who has taken a vow of silence; and little Olive (Abigail Breslin), whose entry in the Little Miss Sunshine pageant takes them all on their weekend journey to Southern California. Their VW van may be on its last legs, but it has enough cargo space to carry all their quirks.

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Just barely, though. Little Miss Sunshine'directed by music-video veterans Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris from a script by Michael Arndt'is the kind of comedy that doesn’t so much create characters as it creates a laundry list of oddities to define them. The story then methodically grinds away their will to live in ways so implausible'a coincidental meeting at a gas station miles from home; a traffic stop that should have highway patrol officers everywhere suing for misrepresentation'that there’s nothing genuine in their predicaments. As the film jams its “our obsession with winning is a problem” theme down our throats, nearly every detail feels forced: Olive’s smiley-face puzzle, a road sign for “Carefree Hwy”'even the family’s name (they’re the Hoovers and they suck, get it?). Breslin’s Olive is a heartbreaking little wonder of authenticity, but she’s surrounded by stuff that’s not funny because it’s essentially false.

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That’s the polar opposite of The Puffy Chair, which only superficially seems built on similar cross-country quirkiness. Josh (co-scripter Mark Duplass), a failed musician now trying to make a living as a booking agent, has planned a solo drive from New York to Atlanta to deliver his father’s birthday present'a replica of the favorite recliner he remembers from his childhood. But solo becomes duo when Josh’s high-maintenance girlfriend Emily (Kathryn Aselton) comes along for the ride. And duo becomes trio when a visit with Josh’s New Age-y brother Rhett (Rhett Wilkins) becomes a hitched ride to join Dad’s birthday festivities.

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The Puffy Chair also comes with its moments of episodic silliness'like a bungled attempt to get a motel room at the single rate'but they hit the funny bone harder because they don’t seem to be trying so hard. Director/co-writer Jay Duplass underplays nearly every key moment, to the point that something as odd as Rhett’s impulsive decision to marry a woman he meets in a movie theater begins to feel almost poignant.

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That scene also becomes a pivotal one as the film explores the relationship between Josh and Emily. As Josh officiates his brother’s ceremony using vows clearly pointed at his own situation, The Puffy Chair dissects one of those relationships everyone has seen'where the two people involved are the only ones who don’t realize they have no business being together. The film plays fair by making it clear that neither Josh’s arrested maturity nor Emily’s unrealistic expectations are the sole problem'simply that together, they’re a toxic combination.

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Is The Puffy Chair often more achingly uncomfortable than it is belly-laugh funny, right up to its improbably abrupt conclusion? Perhaps. Put what laughs there are, it earns fairly and honestly, without turning every character it encounters along the way into a grotesque. Little Miss Sunshine offers only a parade of manufactured loser-dom in a van on a road to nowhere.

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LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE
nn**
nnGreg Kinnear
nnToni Collette
nnSteve Carrell
nnRated R

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THE PUFFY CHAIR
nn***.5
nnMark Duplass
nnKathryn Aselton
nnRhett Wilkins
nnNot rated

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